A Place We Knew Well: A book I liked not so well

This eBook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Review: Susan McCarthy’s A Place We Knew Well had intriguing characters and twists but a disappointingly slow beginning and flat ending.

The novel looks at the Cuban Missile Crisis through the eyes of a family living in suburban Florida. It examines the contrast between the cookie-cutter family values of the 60s and the mounting stresses of a potential World War III.

The characters of A Place We Knew Well are complex and add more depth to the plot.

Wes Avery, whom the novel seems to focus on most, is a World War II veteran who fears the worst may come of the Cuban Missile Crisis but continues to behave as though all is well for the sake of his family.

Sarah Avery is a housewife who numbs her worries with pills. Her prejudices and nervous breakdowns make her the most interesting character of the novel.

Charlotte Avery, their only child, struggles to prepare for homecoming in the midst of the Crisis.

The novel opens with the Charlotte of modern day rummaging through her father’s garage, where she finds several odd items that all relate to their family’s struggles during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wanting to know the relationship between the objects and Charlotte’s distaste for that time of her life, I turned the page.

The slow pace and the focus on Wes quickly bored me. I wanted to know more about Sarah and Charlotte. While the beginning of the story offers a good snapshot of the times–particularly with the added perspective of the Cuban boy Wes hires at the garage–I wanted more action. Perhaps because I know from history that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, I felt little of the suspense the Crisis presses on the Avery family.

McCarthy redeemed herself, though, and renewed my interest with a plot twist that caught me off guard and the introduction of a character very unlike the others.

Though the missiles never explode, the family does.

The loss of two stars on my rating is attributed in part to the initially slow pace and the focus on Wes, who bored me. Mostly, though, the book disappointed me in its final chapter, which was structured as a character’s email to the author.

I’ve read too many stories that end or begin their novels in this manner, and I think it’s not only cliche, but also a bit cheesy. Granted, some of these novels have been a success–such as Rick Riordon’s Kane Chronicles–but A Place We Knew Well would have been better suited to end differently.

I agree that the author should end in modern day, but why not continue in narrative form and finish the scene of Charlotte at her father’s garage? Without a full-circle ending, the introduction feels incomplete. More than that, it feels unnecessary. What is the importance of naming Charlotte’s father’s attorney if he only came up a couple times, and only in the introduction? Will Charlotte ever learn the relation between the items she discovered in her father’s safe? What happened to the character introduced halfway through the story?

The ending McCarthy chose also allows for little emotional weight. I’ve spent over 250 pages with these characters but all I know of their futures is told in a formal, detached letter to a stranger. The long-term effects of the Cold War on the characters is revealed through numbers and politics when it should be revealed through emotional narrative; numbers and politics belong in the Author’s Note.

The novel would have been much stronger if McCarthy had ended it in a place I knew not so well.

Recommendation: Those interested in the Cuban Missile Crisis and/or life in the 1960s might enjoy this novel.

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